Saturday, March 21, 2009

Making Peace in Israel and Palestine

It's Not About Our Anger

In 1984, knowing little of the history of the establishment of the state of Israel and the displacement of Palestinians, I went to work for the American Friends Service Committee (AFSC), a social and political action organization founded in 1917 by American Quakers seeking a way to offer Quaker youth an alternative to military service during World War I.

For the next 35 years after its founding, AFSC staff and volunteers worked with groups both displaced and endangered by war and its aftermath, including European Jews. As the organization evolved, it began to develop new advocacy programs aimed at the root causes of political conflict and social injustice.

When I got to the Michigan office of AFSC, it had two staff working on well-established programs, one focused on conflict in the Middle East, the other on problems in the American system of criminal justice. The staff for the two programs, Richard Cleaver on the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, and Marc Mauer (and later Penny Ryder) on the expansion of the U.S prison system, were knowledgeable, committed and relentlessly inspiring.

Richard taught me to see that the story of the establishment of Israel, the storied “Land of Milk and Honey,” and the rescue of European Jews who had survived the Holocaust, has a dark side, the displacement and oppression, intended or otherwise, of Palestinians. No easy lesson for me, a Jewish boy from the South Side of Chicago, whose first exposure to Israel lay in contributing dimes to such charities as the Jewish National Fund. Richard’s schooling began a twenty-five year journey for me from Jewish nationalist to peace advocacy.

A poem by the late Rabbi Alvin Fine, Life Is a Journey, includes the phrase “From defeat to defeat to defeat.” The lines easily summarize my experience of activism on behalf of both Palestinian self-determination and a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict that acknowledges the real suffering of the Jewish people in Europe both before and during World War II.

The poem continues in a quietly inspiring way:

“…until looking backward or ahead:
We see that victory lies not at some high place along the way,
But in having made the journey stage by stage…”

From this I take the message that we ought not, as we all sometimes do, dwell on our discouragements and our losses, but remain constant, in spite of ourselves, in seeking justice.

It is easy to dwell on the defeats. But I also gratefully recall my experience visiting the West Bank and Israel in early 1988, about a month after the beginning of the first Entifada, the youth-initiated Palestinian uprising against the Israeli occupation. The memory likely includes a good dose of wishful thinking, but I remember a giddy optimism that affected most Palestinians and many Israelis, who all seemed to believe that the Entifada was a history changing event; an event that would lead to the establishment of a Palestinian state in the West Bank and Gaza and the first steps in the real reconciliation of Israeli Jews and Palestinians. I recall, in particular, several Palestinians ( Na’im Atteek and Elias Freij among others) who exhibited both courage in the leadership of the Palestinian cause and a passionate desire for reconciliation with Israeli Jews.

Disillusionment and despair—“defeat” as Rabbi Fine would call it—would turn out to be just a little further down the road. But the moment was exhilarating. When I returned from the West Bank and Israel, I brought with me the sense that those two places, locked in struggle, were together the freest and most exciting place in the world. They were the center of a political discourse in which nothing was sacred and the impossible was possible.

Yes, there was anger and fury, too. Not all Palestinian young people who threw stones at Israeli tanks were moved by a spirit of optimism. Many felt rage, some felt despair, some may have sought nothing more than a bit of revenge against the Israel they believed had stolen their homeland and robbed them of their birthright. Some of those who faced the Israeli Defense Forces (IDF) died, killed in the unequal confrontation. Other Palestinians, many of whom had been displaced from their homes as a consequence of the establishment of Israel in 1948, felt no hope, at all; only a certain conviction that Israel would prevail at Palestinian expense.

Neither did all Israelis embrace the vision of Palestinians and Jews living side by side in peace. Some saw only rage in the Palestinian rebellion. Some saw in the new Jewish settlements on Palestinian territory the opportunity for a home of their own. Some “realists,” Zionists to the core, believed that a Greater Israel, dominant from the Mediterranean to the Jordan River, was the only acceptable future.

But I was deeply immersed in my own Rodney King, can’t-we-all-just-get-along moment. And I was certain that a solution to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict was imminent.

Along the path to that point, I had encountered a few rocky moments of my own. In the summer of 1986, in particular, when I was a member of the Ann Arbor, MI, city council, I had been booed off the stage by a crowd of hundreds gathered at Hill Auditorium to hear Natan Sharansky (billed as an activist for human rights on a global basis), who had been released earlier that year after nearly a decade in a Soviet prison.

As the introductory speaker on the program, and an elected official, my job was to warm up the crowd with a short what-human-rights-means-to-me presentation. In fact, the crowd went from warm to hot fairly quickly, enraged by the suggestion that human rights is a single seamless concept and must include Palestinian self-determination as surely as it acknowledges Jewish aspiration for a secure homeland.

Bad as my sense of defeat at Hill Auditorium was, it paled before the optimism I felt in the West Bank less than six months later. But as the poem would put it, the West Bank was not a “destination,” at all. It was a point along the way. I’ve had many such points since, moments of presence and accountability, and moments of absence and silence.

Now, more than 20 years later, my new friend Ari Roth, the director of Theatre J in Washington, DC, finds himself and his colleagues immersed in a moment of controversy of their own. On March 26 and 28, Theatre J will stage a reading of the play “Seven Jewish Children.” The announcement (not the actual performance) of the play has already kicked off a firestorm of criticism and alarm that threatens to overwhelm all that Theatre J has accomplished as a place to confront and discuss the major issues of our time.

Those who would narrow and police the boundaries of discussion in regard to the Israeli-Palestinian conflict have already begun attacking Ari as a self-hating Jew. The play itself, first performed in England, was almost immediately attacked as anti-Semitic. Others, who style themselves as Palestinian solidarity activists, will soon begin attacking Ari and Theatre J for not going far enough, for failing to expose Israel as an apartheid state representing Western imperialist interests.

The heat and anger that will accompany the performance of “Seven Jewish Children” will not differ much from the emotion that has driven me from the stage in the past. But I intend to return to the fray this time on behalf of the notion that whatever we feel and believe, we have an obligation to engage each other in a search for a sliver of common ground on which we might stand, and from which we might continue our search for lasting peace and justice. Call it another Rodney King moment, or call me clueless in Gaza, if you must, but it feels better than anger.

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